The fact that we spent most of our lives working in and for places that catered to summertime recreation, the thought of pre-planning and obtaining permits sometimes escapes us. When we were working, and our kids were younger, our recreation time was generally in the “off-season” which didn’t create the need and urgency for permits. While you could probably get away with not obtaining a permit, we are rules people and understand the purpose of permitting as it pertains to user safety, user experience and especially user impact. Most permits can be obtained on-line through recreation.gov, and are usually not more than $5/permit/person. Half Dome permits, however are $10/person. The problem one runs into, is when people reserve and pay for permits, but fail to cancel their reservation(s), especially inside of the two week period when refunds are not given. I get where people may think that losing $5 is no big deal, and think of it as “donation” to the park service so they make no effort to cancel their reservations. Failing to cancel said reservation IS, in fact, a BIG DEAL. Generally, because of this, the park service can not release and refill the unclaimed permits until 10:30 – 11 am the day of the permit, when the “inventory” of “unclaimed” permits is confirmed. Hence, this is why if you can not obtain a permit on-line (or via phone…rangers still pick up the phone), you must be at one of the appropriate Wilderness Permit Stations the day/night before to get on a first come first serve waiting list. As all permits for Half Dome AND the John Muir Trail (JMT) seemed to have been “reserved”, we were “shit out of luck” when we started looking at doing Half Dome, back in May, for a September permit. Each year from March 1-31 one can put in for lottery, specifically for Half Dome, so we were more than a little late. As the weeks went on, we would look periodically to see if anything opened up, but such was not the case. We had discovered a way “around” the permitting process for Half Dome, provided we hiked northbound from Cottonwood Pass, which meant doing the entire JMT and a section of the PCT (of which Paul and I would gladly do again). We were however, pretty sure neither Sandy or Scout could take off that much time (or would want to do that many miles…continually). The Wilderness Permit would allow for Half Dome (if requested) without having to put in for the “lottery”. That being said, we would have to do the math, and then pick up the permit from the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine at the appropriate time/date. Obviously with hiking the Chilkoot Trail and fishing another week, the timing was such that we couldn’t pull it off. The plan then became…let’s “wing” it. We had called and talked to a Ranger at Yosemite who explained the daily lottery and trailhead options, as well as our probability of obtaining a permit based on our trip’s “window”. If we were a little flexible we could pull this off. Our niece and her husband were also supposed to join us on this adventure, however, we later found out that as she had been in a recent traffic accident and by the time the trip came along, she had not been released to participate. Seeing as our planned start date, and therefore finish date, were not etched in stone, her husband would not be able to join us either. Thus our group that started with eight (our son and my friend Jody were trying to fit this trip in as well, but could not) was down to four. This allowed for a higher probability of success in obtaining a permit on the date and trailhead we wished to start. In Yosemite, each trailhead has a daily quota for overnight wilderness permits. The smaller your group, the higher the probability for walk-up permitting, and usually you’re more flexible as well with less “cooks” in the kitchen. The vast majority of people who make the climb to Half Dome, go by way of Yosemite Valley starting at Curry Village, now permanently renamed as “Half Dome Village”, due to the prior concessionaire laying claim to “owning” the name “Curry Village” and the “Ahwahnee Hotel” as well (it has been renamed too, as the Majestic Yosemite Hotel). From Half Dome Village to the top of Half Dome and back again is a grueling 16.4 mile trek. 8.2 miles of continual up followed by the same amount of continual down. Most people begin their trek near 5 am. It is a full day, and if it is hot, one needs to plan on carrying A LOT of water, and/or a water filter. While you can “camel up” at Vernal Falls (0.8 miles) or at Nevada Falls (3.5 miles via JMT or 2.7 via Mist Trail), without a need for a filter, you will need a filter if you want water from the Merced River at Little Yosemite Valley to make the remaining 3.5 mile ascent to the top of Half Dome, which are not easy miles. You of course, then need to turn around and come back with (or without) water. A one day event such as this, is NOT appealing. There are however other ways to skin the cat that is Half Dome, if you have the time, and are flexible. Ones “day before” options to Half Dome, are as follows with mileage listed as One Way:
Walk-in permits are best obtained at the Yosemite Village Wilderness Permit Station in Yosemite Valley (9-5)
- Half Dome Village (8.2 miles)
- Glacier Point (9.2 miles) via the Panorama Trail
Walk-in permits are best obtained at the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Permit Station (8-4:30)
- Sunrise Lakes TH (13.0 miles). Total miles to Yosemite Valley – 17.3 miles*.
- Cathedral Lakes TH (16.7 miles). Total miles to Yosemite Valley – 21.2. miles*
- Rafferty Creek / Vogelsang TH to Merced Lake via Fletcher Creek to Half Dome via Little Yosemite Valley (27.7 miles). Total miles to Yosemite Valley – 32.4 miles*
- RaffertyCreek / Vogelsang TH to Merced Lake via Fletcher Creek to Half Dome via the JMT junction (25.7 miles). Total miles to Yosemite Valley – 30.4 miles*
- Lyell Canyon via Fletcher Creek/Little Yosemite Valley to Half Dome (36 miles) . Total miles to Yosemite Valley – 39.7 miles*
*Total miles are as close as possible, but consider them “approximate”, as exact math is not my strong suit.
Each Trailhead has a quota. This means that only a certain number of people are permitted to start from that point each day. This is where it gets tricky. One should have three options, either trailhead and/or start date if you really want to do this.
We wanted to start on the Tuesday after Labor Day, Wednesday at the latest. Looking at the topo map of the trail, and the total miles, our first choice was to start at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead, second Rafferty Creek and third Lyell Canyon. As we were already in Mammoth Lakes over the holiday weekend, it was an easy drive to the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Station. We left Sunday afternoon and arrived in time to talk to the Rangers and work out the logistics before Scout and Sandy met up with us on Tuesday. When we arrived at the office, we were actually issued a permit for three (including Half Dome) for Monday (the next day). As we had planned on and now needed to be lined up at “O’dark Early” Monday morning for the fourth permit, the Ranger explained that if it looked like there was “room” for a Tuesday start, we could turn in our Monday permits (which they would release to those also in line) and pick up our permits for a Tuesday start when everything flushes out at 1030 am. Obviously, “a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush”. As we already had a permit issued for a Monday start, we were allowed to camp in the Backpackers campsites of the Tuolumne Meadows campground at $6/person. Our car had to be outside the campground and/or parked at the permit station lot. We spent the rest of Sunday spying on fish in the Tuolumne River.
Monday morning found us a little chilled till the sun came up, and in line with 20 other people by 8 am. With our group size down to 4 people, securing our permits, especially after the “high season” of hiking for the JMT, and Half Dome for that matter, was fairly easy. We had stressed for no real reason.
We spent the rest of the day playing “tourist” and made our way down to the smoke choked and ridiculously crowded Yosemite Valley, in an effort to figure out how the heck we were going to get back to our cars in Tuolumne when we had finished this trek. This was going to be tricky as the Yosemite Area Rapid Transit System (YARTS) , as of Labor Day now only ran on Sat/Sun (at 5pm, $9/person) back to Tuolumne Meadows, and that was only going to be until the end of the month. The “Hiker Bus” , run by a concessionaire ran at 8 am from Half Dome Village for $14.50/person till Sept 10th. Our other option would be to hitchhike back to our cars. With options in hand, we worked our way back to the tranquility and crisp clean air of Tuolumne Meadows. By the time we got back, it looked like a ghost town. Cars were no longer parked bumper to bumper on the shoulder of Tioga Rd. The meadow trails were absent swarms of people. The ginormous boulder “hills” that line portions of the road were devoid of outdoor clad people scurrying about like ants. It’s as if someone said, “Get out!…Now!”, and to our delight, they did. This opened up a regular campsite for us to set up and wait for Scout and Sandy to arrive. Here, we would be able to better reorganize our gear and prep our “smellables” into coolers for storage at the trailhead bear lockers.